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Aging population, sustainability issues come together at interdisciplinary conference

As the massive baby boomer generation nears retirement age, how will the demographic shift affect the country's move toward environmental sustainability? Are there ways to age that are graceful and green -- and if so, how can policymakers encourage retirees to consider their own health and the planet's in their lifestyle choices?

Researchers from across Cornell (including several from Weill Cornell Medical College) and around the country came together at the Statler Hotel July 23 for the first Cornell Conference on Aging and the Environment.

The conference, sponsored by the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future as part of its 2008 Academic Venture Fund program, was the beginning of a major new push to consider the effects of the aging population in the context of the environment, said organizer and professor of human development Karl Pillemer.

"Even though those two areas individually have occupied an enormous amount of attention, they've only been connected to a small degree," Pillemer said. "We feel we're on the cutting edge of this issue."

Discussions focused on three topics: the potential impacts of climate change on the elderly; environmental volunteerism among older adults; and the environmental impact of various living environments for the elderly.

On the latter topic, researchers considered ways to encourage environmentally friendly living situations such as multigenerational housing; to facilitate renovations that make homes more energy efficient and more accessible; and to study and address issues of race and class that may influence living choices.

"We can't [build in a] monocultural way; we have to have a diversity of response," said Keith Diaz Moore, associate professor of architecture at the University of Kansas. "One size does not fit all."

The conference structure was based on an interactive "consensus workshop" model, which Pillemer designed in 2006 to encourage dialogue across disciplines. For each topic, participants prepared the most current research, then broke into small groups to discuss research priorities and challenges, and finally came together again to share ideas and consider related questions.

Planning for the event was intensive. "The process depends on getting the right people to the table," said co-facilitator Rhoda Meador, professor of human development and assistant director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center. Armed with new perspectives and ideas, researchers will begin planning projects and applying for funding.

"It's very rare in our society that you can solve two problems at once," said Pillimer. "In this case, this is an ideal venue to address two problems ... large numbers of retiring baby boomers who are moving into a post-work role without clear plans of what to do next; and the society's need for individuals who are engaged in environmental volunteerism and civic engagement."

Linking the two could lead to strategies that benefit everyone, he said, adding: "I want all these problems to be fixed by the time I'm old."

The College of Human Ecology, the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center and the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging co-sponsored the conference.

Media Contact

Nicola Pytell